Do you feel the need? The need for speed? Then you’ll wanna strap yourself in for these top notch Top Gun facts.
But watch out: knowing these wild stories might make you feel like your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.
‘Top Gun’ is based on real friggin’ life
Remember the opening title card? It talks about the California-based U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, which pilots took to calling “TOPGUN.” Sounds like Hollywood exaggerations, right?
Nope, it’s all true. And the real life “TOPGUN” was formed in response to Vietnam War failures and need for air combat strengthening.
Since the film was released, the institution has relocated to Florida, and tried mildly to shift away from its Hollywood spotlight. In fact, if you decide to enroll and reference Top Gun in any way, you owe your teachers five bucks.
Um… do they take Venmo?
The writing process was unique
When you picture people writing a movie, what do you see? Glasses-wearing nerds stuck in an office? On Top Gun, the process was a little different.
As part of their research, screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. took classes at the Navy and actually flew some F-14 planes.
Er, well, only Epps flew in the planes. Cash, ironically, was afraid of flying.
He was so afraid that they worked long-distance, with Epps in Los Angeles and Cash in Michigan. Yep: the entire screenplay for Top Gun was written via faxes, phone calls, and early stages of email.
Many people turned down Tom Cruise’s role
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Tom Cruise playing Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. But the role was originally offered to Matthew Modine, of Vision Quest fame. However, he turned it down, feeling it went against his beliefs. He went on to appear in antiwar Full Metal Jacket.
There were plenty of other potential actors who almost donned Maverick’s shades and leather jacket. It reads as a who’s who of 1980s leading men: Patrick Swayze, Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Broderick, Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, and John Cusack.
The Navy supported the film — at a cost
For both accuracy and budgetary efficiency, filmmakers knew they wanted the US Navy’s official support and participation. And the Navy played along — so long as dramatic script changes were made. They toned down all of the language, and reset the opening dogfight from Cuba to vaguely “international waters.”
The Navy also had an issue with Maverick’s love story. Originally, Charlie (Kelly McGinnis) was an enlisted member of the Navy herself. But the Navy made filmmakers change her to a civilian contractor with the Navy, because of their policies against in-Navy relationships.
It cost the studio so much to fly a single plane
How much would you pay for a rental car? 40 bucks a day?
To fly a rented Navy plane, Top Gun’s studio ponied up $7,800 an hour! On top of that, they had to redo all their shooting plans based on what the Navy would allow them to do.
During one shooting day, director Tony Scott wanted a Navy pilot to fly a certain way to get better lighting. He was told it would cost $25,000 to make that maneuver. Scott got out his personal checkbook and wrote him the check on the spot.
Charlie’s based on a real person
McGillis’ character Charlie, whom Maverick falls in love with, is based on Christine Fox, a real life Navy defense tactician.
Her dope nickname? “Legs.” And whenever her overwhelmingly male colleagues heard the clicking of her heels down the hall, they knew they had to shape up.
Fox worked at the Center for Naval Analyses training members of the Navy. She regularly faced misogyny — one colleague at the Center was quoted as saying, “She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met. I like women for a lot of things and being smart isn’t usually one of them.”
Maverick is not based on a real person — but one guy thinks he is
Unlike Charlie, Cruise’s depiction of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was not specifically based on one person. But that didn’t stop Randy “Duke” Cunningham, former TOPGUN instructor and Arkansas Congressman, from publicly bragging that he was the real-life Maverick. Producers denied it every step of the way.
Cunningham did wind up being a bit of a Maverick — if by “Maverick” you mean “super corrupt criminal.”
As a Congressman, he regularly accepted bribes, evaded taxes, and committed mail and wire fraud. He went to prison for eight years and had to pay $1.8 million in fines.
A famous location was destroyed
Two of the most joyous scenes of Top Gun involve music: Goose and Maverick singing “Great Balls of Fire” and the reprise of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Both were shot at Kansas City Barbecue, a real-life restaurant which went on to store lots of memorabilia from the film. Until…
In 2008, a kitchen fire destroyed the entire building. The San Diego-based restaurant had seen a resurgence thanks to Top Gun, and now all of its memorabilia was gone, gone, gone — except for that piano.
Thankfully, they rebuilt and reopened five months later.
Someone died on set
Renowned stunt pilot Art Scholl, who had worked on projects like The Right Stuff and The A-Team, was hired to work on lots of shots for the film. In one sequence, he was supposed to do a flat spin while filming. Something went horribly wrong.
Scholl’s last words heard over the radio were chilling: “I have a problem… I have a real problem.”
His plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Neither he nor the plane were ever found. The movie ends with an onscreen dedication to his memory.
The soundtrack went nine times platinum
Known for his ultra-catchy synth-work on Beverly Hills Cop, composer Harold Faltermeyer got the script for Top Gun before filming began. His thorough work paid off, as the soundtrack was number one for five weeks. Also, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Before filmmakers settled on tracks like Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” over 300 songs were tested in editing. Bryan Adams considered writing some tracks, but left the project due to personal beliefs. Toto was going to record “Danger Zone,” but dropped after legal and financial disputes.
The movie boosted the numbers of weirdly specific things
At the movie’s release, some critics snarkily called it military propaganda. In some ways, they may have been right: Top Gun caused the Navy’s recruitment rates to skyrocket 500 percent. The Navy even set up enlistment booths in theatres playing the movie.
If you wanted to look like one of those cooler-than-cool pilots, you had to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses and leather bomber jackets. Coincidentally, sales of both of those items went up by 40%.
Also, there’s an “I Only High-five Top Gun Style” group on Facebook with 6,000 members.
The director got the job in a strange way
Tony Scott, brother of Ridley (Alien, Blade Runner), had just directed The Hunger, a bonkers vampire movie starring David Bowie. While it’s become a cult classic, it flopped on release, and stopped Scott’s career dead in its tracks.
So why did producers hire him for Top Gun?
It definitely wasn’t because of The Hunger. It was because of a car commercial.
Scott had worked a lot in the commercial field, crafting his hyper-stylized look. When producers saw a Scott-directed Saab commercial, where a car races a Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet, they knew they had their man.
One actor decided to give up show biz life
Have you seen all the actors coming back for 2020 sequel Top Gun: Maverick? You may have missed one: McGillis, as Charlie.
That’s in part because she’s mostly stopped acting and started working full time at the Bridgeton Seabrook House, a rehab center in New Jersey, in 2011.
McGillis loves her new life, working locally with her New Jersey community: “If I can impact one life, that’s enough. And I don’t know if I can do that in acting.”
After Top Gun, other works for McGillis included The Accused, The Babe, and The Innkeepers.
One role was written for an actor
Adrian Pasdar was a 19-year-old unknown from Massachusetts, who paid for his acting classes with compensation earned from an accident that severed part of his thumb.
And when he auditioned for Top Gun, Scott was so impressed, he wrote him a part: Lieutenant Charles “Chipper” Piper.
Since Top Gun, Pasdar has had a versatile career. He’s a prolific voice actor, playing superheroes like Iron Man and Captain America. He directed a neo-noir adaptation of Othello called Cement. And he even left the biz for awhile, returning to a modest life as a cashier in New York.
Actors tried to do their own flying, with mixed results
Cruise is known for doing his own stunts as often as possible. You can imagine him begging to get into those planes himself, right?
But when producers tried to film him, and other actors (except for Val Kilmer, who refused), doing their actual flying, it went… pretty poorly.
The actors, to put it delicately, kept throwing the heck up. So most of the footage wasn’t usable, and had to be reshot with stunt performers. Of all the actors who were filmed flying, only some Cruise footage made it in the final cut.
Guess no mission’s impossible for him.
Tom Cruise invented something that’s now common practice
Nowadays, every film released gets multiple premieres. You’ll see the stars dress up and hit the red carpet in America — then later see them do the same song and dance in a bunch of other countries across the world. How did this tradition begin?
Thank Tom Cruise.
Cruise came up with the idea of international premieres on Top Gun. As he told Jimmy Kimmel, he spent weeks in France, Japan, and Italy, traveling to local cities in his promotional work — other studios soon followed suit.
We can’t imagine how many frequent flyer miles this guy has.
Some reshoots made life difficult for actors
While editing the movie, Scott realized he needed to beef up his love story between Maverick and Charlie. So six months after shooting was over, he called back in Cruise and McGillis to film some more material. There was just one problem…
Both of their hair was radically different, thanks to commitments to other projects. So Scott had to think on his feet: In the key scene, you can see McGillis wearing a hat. And for Cruise’s different hair, they had him just be getting out of the shower.
It took a while to convince Tom Cruise
After Modine and other actors turned down the role of Maverick, filmmakers turned their attention to Cruise, best known at that point for Risky Business. But Cruise kept turning it down. So the filmmakers had to resort to some wild measures to convince their star.
Hollywood mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer had Cruise do a ride-along with flying stunt team The Blue Angels. He had a ponytail from filming Legend with Ridley “Brother of Tony” Scott, and the Angels made fun of him.
But, when they landed, Cruise got to a payphone and signed on immediately.
This was the first shot at stardom for many actors
While Cruise’s star was just starting to rise, he certainly wasn’t the member of Hollywood royalty we know him to be now. Top Gun was, for him and other actors like Kilmer, a real breakthrough moment and a bit of a risk for the studios.
Remember the scene where a woman calls Goose “a big stud”? That’s none other than Meg Ryan, cutting her teeth on a small role years before blowing up in classics like When Harry Met Sally.
A movie about a pilot training school wound up being a superstar training school!
Romance was in the air for two actors
While McGillis and Cruise fall in love onscreen, in real life they were just co-workers. In fact, McGillis has since called out Cruise for not asking her to be in the sequel.
However, McGillis and Barry Tubb, who played Henry “Wolfman” Ruth, had a different off-camera story.
It’s like a classic romcom. Tubb watched McGillis trip and fall, and that was it: “She fell down in the middle of the street, and she had my heart.” They lived together for two years after filming.
Also — Meg Ryan and Anthony Edwards (Nick “Goose” Bradshaw) had a fling, too!
Some footage fooled international news agencies
In 2011, China Central Television, the country’s state TV department, tried to broadcast a story about how good Chinese fighter pilots were. To illustrate their point, they had thrilling shots of their planes soaring in the air.
There was just one problem…
It wasn’t Chinese pilots. It was, literally, Top Gun.
CCT broadcast footage from a 1980s Hollywood movie as part of their “facts.” The broadcast was immediately taken off the air. Ironically, China was in the middle of trying to stop the spreading of falsified, propagandic imagery.
The flying sequences are realistic for a good reason
Have you noticed how real the flying sequences feel? How even when the film succumbs to over-the-top dialogue and ludicrous volleyball games, it comes back to earth whenever it goes up into the sky? Scott did something unorthodox to ensure the movie’s realism of flight.
Instead of using the same camera operators every big-budget blockbuster was using, Scott hired documentary camera operators to film any effects sequences. The move successfully gave the film its subconscious grittiness, and was hugely influential on other filmmakers, including Jon Favreau for Iron Man.
Cruise had some interesting on-set techniques
Some actors use curious methods to stay in character while filming. And while Cruise didn’t go to Daniel Day-Lewis lengths for Top Gun, he did utilize some unorthodox acting techniques.
To most effectively depict Maverick and Iceman’s tension, Cruise never spoke to Kilmer when they weren’t filming.
Additionally, as part of the film’s “traditional” views of masculinity, Cruise made sure his love interest McGillis was barefoot in scenes, while he wore cowboy boot lifts to increase his height.
This ain’t the first time Cruise has beefed up his height on screen, and it won’t be the last.
The director got fired three times — and came back each time
Scott loves him some slow motion. So, he filmed the entire opening credits sequence, set to “Danger Zone,” in dreamy slowmo. The studio hated it so much, wondering why you’d film a movie about fast planes slowly, they fired him.
Then… they brought him back.
Scott’s second firing came when producers didn’t like how he filmed McGillis (they used… quite the problematic term). Then, they brought him back again.
Finally, when he obscured the actors’ faces by putting down their helmet visors, he was fired a third time. But somehow, they just couldn’t stay Scott-free.
U.S.-Soviet flying relationships weren’t so intense in real life
In 1986, we were at peak Cold War. The perfect time to watch a movie where American pilots mess with Soviets. So, in the movie, we see U.S. planes fly real close to Russian ones, giving those pesky Ruskies the middle finger. America, heck yeah!
But in real life…
…the opposing pilots were a lot friendlier.
They’d fly close to each other, yes — but they’d hold up friendly glasses of vodka, or even adult magazines. As technical advisor Mike McCabe put it, “They’re doing their job, we’re doing our job, we don’t set the policy, we just execute it.”
One scene made a crew member lose faith in actors
Meg Ryan is great. We all know this.
In one potentially difficult Top Gun scene, her character breaks down crying. For another actor, this might have been a difficult ask. How was it for Ryan?
Great. Like, too great. Spooky great.
Ryan cried on cue for over 20 takes. And it spooked technical advisor Pete “Viper” Pettigrew: “I didn’t realize that actors could actually do that, and in fact I’ve lost all faith in actors because I don’t know if they tell anybody the truth because they don’t have to.”
They almost killed the producer at the wrap party
The movie’s over? Everyone party!
After the graduation scene, production had a raucous, booze-fueled party, where Scott started tossing people into a pool. Producer Don Simpson was visiting, and when some real pilots tossed him into the deep end… he sank straight to the bottom.
He wasn’t moving. And it wasn’t looking good. Everyone scrambled into the pool to rescue him — thank goodness they were successful.
Simpson revealed he straight up couldn’t swim. Plus, he was wearing cowboy boots and a leather jacket, weighing him down.
You never learn one key pilot’s real name
Part of the fun of Top Gun is everyone’s fun nickname — a real thing the pilots at the real TOPGUN do. And while the characters refer almost solely to each other by their nicknames, you still do briefly learn their real names.
Except for one: Goose.
Goose is an emotional lynchpin of the film. And we only ever know him as a dang bird. After he dies, you can see his real name Nick Bradshaw on a flight patch — but that’s it!
His son Bradley will be played by Miles Teller in the sequel.
There’s a bunch of nods to behind the scenes people
To show their credit to the real men and women who inspired the onscreen heroes, filmmakers gave technical advisor Pettigrew, aka Viper, a key cameo. To make Maverick jealous, Charlie meets up with an older man at a bar — played by Viper.
In the final dogfight, you can hear the line, “Ready Willard and Simkin on cats 3 and 4,” a reference to a dogfight choreographer Robert Willard and casting director Margery Simkin. Also, you can see a locker that says TEX, which is a reference to crewmember William “Tex” Spence.
It’s based on a magazine article
Basing a movie on a book is a common practice. But what about basing a movie on a magazine article? Is there even enough information available? Believe it or not, Top Gun is a based on a California magazine article called, appropriately, “Top Guns.”
In the article, writer Ehud Yonay profiled the day-to-day life of Navy fighter pilots at a base they called “Fightertown USA” (also a great title for a potential movie).
The piece also featured awe-inspiring photography from Commander Charles “Heater” Heatley, which inspired the filmmakers greatly.
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Let’s count down the richest living actors and actresses. We bet you’ll be shocked at how much some of them are worth.
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